We've had an eye on the "Hackaball" project by London based agency Made by Many since we heard wind early last year. What started out as a brief for two talented incoming interns, slowly grew legs and spiraled into a learning project that saw the studio stepping back from the screen to hold up a torch to the still murky frontier of seamless physical/digital interaction, with the aim of taking the idea to market.
Two years on and the creators are now putting their hard work and shiny prototype to the test—embarking on a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 in 30 days to bring their programmable ball—with supporting app—to manufacture.
As the pitch video illustrates, Hackaball is a modern, technologically infused take on the humble ball. Packed full of sensors, LEDs, speakers and a mic and coming with a delightful supporting app, the ball allows kids to imagine and program their own games (and other fun little functions) in a 'if-this-then-that' style system.
Ahead of the launch the team at Made by Many invited us along to their canal-side London studio to get the low-down on the story behind the slick prototype video and crowdfunding campaign.
Whilst the idea of a programmable ball is a simple one — and very much in line with other toys, games and products attempting to introduce a generation of unsuspecting kids to the logic and power of code — the attention to design detailing across the products elements (refined form, playful UI, considered sound design, sophisticated lighting, free-wheeling game-play, branding, packaging and even out-of-the-box experience) is of a rare level of sophistication for the realms of Kickstarterdom.
An out-of-the-box experience that breaks down expectations and preconceptions of technology
Cracking open the circular, star-studded box, lucky kids of a successfully crowd-funded future will be presented with a toy in bits—the guts, skeleton and skin on show from the get go, subverting the normal preconceptions of the unapproachable and delicate nature of technological devices. The hardware-packed core module is placed between two rugged plastic sphere halves and then held together by stretching the perforated rubber skin over the shape to bring the ball to life.
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Getting to the point of a Kickstarter ready prototype saw the Made by Many team go through dozens of iterations—true to their philosophy of 'Make, Test, Learn.' The first experiments, the team tell us, were little more than a clunky Arduino taped to a foam ball—the quick and dirty device mock-up still wired in to cables as it was thrown around.
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Being a digital agency at heart, Made by Many collaborated with Barber Osgerby spin-off MAP to develop the ball's form and CMF. Giving the object a distinctive form converged with competing needs to protect the balls inner-workings, inviting rough and tumble play, as well as a desire to keep the toy as gender neutral as possible. The final design took a small amount of inspiration from other toys on the market—the circular opening at the top giving something of a personality with an "eye."
Enter a caption (optional) An early iteration of the toys digital interface
With a team of digital specialists at hand, the digital element of the product is where the most delightful creativity would shine through. After early experiments with a simple flat, drag-and-drop UI—with games arranged in lists— the team soon realized that increasing the animation and reducing the amount of text were important factors for their young, digital native audience.
The final UI does away with lists and presents itself as something of a space-scape—saved games floating around the screen in constellations, simple icons and animated flourishes hinting towards the game-play involved.
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Throughout Hackaball's development, Made by Many carried out extensive user-testing with kids at varying ages. Presenting their prototypes to the youngsters, the team was repeatedly astonished by the children's creativity — games that the kids created often bearing very little resemblance to normative ideals and narratives of game-play, often replacing competitiveness for drama and roleplay.
Made by Many were, of course, also savvy enough to glean the opinions of parents as part of their testing—at a very premium toy price point of $65, the team knows that convincing parents is one of the key challenges of getting Hackaball out into the world. Whilst impressed by the creative nature of the product, parents feedback inspired other nuances to the experience including an evolving product lifestyle to boost longevity (certain programmable actions remain locked until certain tasks are completed), sharing of games between children is limited by proximity (open exchange being a world of fear for parents) and multi–functionality such as the option to record new sounds as well as program the ball for task such as as an alarm clock (switched off with a good hurl at a wall).
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With such loving craft having gone into the toy this is surely one Kickstarter campaign bound for Stretch Goal glory. We're looking forward to getting our hands on the real thing.
For more info or to put your money where your drool is check out the Hackaball Kickstarter page.